May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Strategies for Assessing Student Understanding in the NGSS Classroom

Posted: Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

by Sara Dozier

Like me, you are probably excited about the opportunities that the Next Generation Science Standards offer students and teachers. For the first time in 17 years, our science standards are asking us to engage our students in science learning that is engaging, meaningful and just plain fun. In addition to our excitement, though, there is also some apprehension.

One concern teachers share is how accountability will work for the California NGSS. What will “the test” look like? The new NGSS-aligned California science assessment system is in the early design stages so we don’t yet know for certain. The State Implementation Plan for California NGSS indicates a pilot of the new NGSS-aligned monitoring assessment system in 2016-17, with the assessment system to be fully operational in 2018-19. Some teachers may consider waiting until we can see the new assessment system before they change their teaching and assessment practices. However, we have a gift of time to teach students how to express their science knowledge in all three dimensions of NGSS on assessments and use the rich information from these tasks to guide instruction. There is no time like the present to start making the shifts needed in the long run.

But what does three-dimensional assessment look like, anyway? And, how can teachers start shifting without burying themselves in the work of writing and grading these new assessments? The steps below describe one way to start transitioning during the awareness and transition phases. During implementation, we will need assessments that are fully aligned with the Performance Expectations. By starting now, we can start teaching our students and ourselves these skills in parallel with the work of transitioning our curriculum toward the NGSS. Build on your existing curriculum to start shifting now using the steps described below.

Go slowly and start with what you already have.  Three-dimensional learning means that you have a task that assesses the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices and the Cross Cutting Concepts. To assess understanding, start by using the NGSS-aligned work students do as they are learning, rather than creating new, separate NGSS tasks for learning and tasks for assessment.

  • Example Lesson Embedded Assessment: the familiar Can Crusher activity
  • Traditional Demonstration: Boil 10 mL of water in an empty soda can. Using tongs, invert the can into cold water. The can crushes.
  • Modifications for NGSS: After teacher approval of experimental design, students investigate the effect of different variables on the phenomenon. (See NGSS Appendix D for a detailed lesson sequence that utilizes this experiment.)

Don’t try to fit all three dimensions into one question. Teachers are experienced writers of items (test questions, writing or discussion prompts, etc.) that assess the Disciplinary Core Ideas, and we should incorporate those items as we develop new tasks. Learning and assessment tasks should not be a single item, but contain multiple items that collectively measure all three dimensions.

Examine the Science and Engineering Practices. To assess the Science and Engineering Practices, choose the practice most aligned to your instructional task. For the Can Crusher example, we explore the Practice of Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. Refer to the NGSS Appendix F and find your grade band in the progression. Identify just one bullet point that you will focus on in the lesson.

A grade 6-8 example: “Evaluate the accuracy of various methods for collecting data.” To address this, you might start with a whole class discussion of how different groups measured the dependent variable or use an exit slip to see how they they understand the role of data collection in understanding the properties of different states of matter. You could add an analysis question to their lab write-up asking, ”How did you choose to collect data in your experiment? If you could revise your data collection plan to be more accurate, what would you change and how would it improve your accuracy?”

The important part is that you understand how they are evaluating accuracy in the context of this scientific understanding.

Frame student responses through the lens of the Crosscutting Concepts. Assessing the Crosscutting Concepts may seem more challenging. I suggest a similar approach, this time referring to NGSS Appendix G, identifying a bullet from “Progression of the Crosscutting Concepts,” and eliciting your students’ thinking through that lens.

For example, the Crosscutting Concept of Cause and Effect provides this description: “Relationships can be classified as causal or correlational, and correlation does not necessarily imply causation.” In the Can Crusher example students might identify the observed effect and describe their understanding of the cause. This could be followed by a discussion of the evidence supporting the claim that the condensation of water vapor actually caused the collapse, rather than just appearing to happen at the same time.

This may be the first time your students have been asked to distinguish between correlation and causation in science.  This is a great opportunity to use classroom discourse to build an understanding of the distinction while at the same time you listen to their conversations to assess their understanding.

Use your questions to get inside their heads. All tasks should give you a clear window into how your students use their science knowledge, not just whether they wrote the “right” answer. Arriving at a normative, developmentally appropriate understanding of science is coupled with the process students use to gain that understanding. Writing prompts and questions that elicit student explanations of their thought process is in sharp contrast to multiple-choice items. These items are challenging for teachers to design, made doubly so by students’ unfamiliarity with answering them. Teachers and students need practice to become comfortable with this type of learning and assessment. Start with items you currently use, and write down some possible responses or look at actual student work from past experiences. With these anticipated responses in mind, determine whether this particular item provides deep insight to the students’ thinking or just the opportunity to demonstrate rote learning (e.g. define vocabulary, run an algorithm). Modify these items to encourage students to share their thinking.

Don’t worry about how to grade these new items. Grading is an important part of our work, as it provides clear feedback to students, parents, and outside entities about the student’s achievement. While we are exploring this new type of assessment, it will be difficult to assign proficiency-based grades. With practice you will be much more comfortable identifying three-dimensional learning goals and assigning grades based on their progress toward the goal. When you feel ready to change your grading structure, see Formative Assessment & Standards‑Based Grading by Marzano for one creative approach.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. As we move toward the 2018-19 operational California NGSS-aligned assessment, we need to build our students’ capacity to demonstrate their ability to use their science knowledge as they engage in the Science and Engineering Practices as the Crosscutting Concepts. It may be a bit bumpy at first, but remember teachers and students alike are all learning this new way of teaching and learning. As teachers, we need to find ways to elicit responses that allow us to see inside our students’ thinking. As you shift your classroom culture and teaching practices toward the NGSS, keep these ideas in mind to prepare to enter the implementation phase of California NGSS.

Other NGSS Assessment Resources

Concord Consortium NGSS Assessment Project- Sample Assessment Tasks

California NGSS Implementation Plan

Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards, NRC Committee Report, June 2014

Invitational Research Symposium on Science Assessment, September 24–25, 2013

Sara Dozier is Science Coordinator, Integrated Middle School Science Partnership at the Alameda County Office of Education.  She was invited to write for CCS by Lisa Hegdahl.

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.